On The Eve Of His Trial, A Deeper Look Into How Paul Manafort Elected Ukraine’s President

Paul Manafort, U.S. President Donald Trump's former campaign manager, is shown in a booking photo in Alexandria, Virginia, on July 12. His fraud trial is scheduled to begin July 31.

Paul Manafort didn’t think very much of Viktor Yanukovych.

The longtime U.S. political consultant and lobbyist voiced serious misgivings in 2005 when he was brought on by several Ukrainian oligarchs to rehabilitate Yanukovych after his loss the previous year in Ukraine's presidential election to Viktor Yushchenko, amid mass protests known as the Orange Revolution.

"Yanukovych's designation as the candidate of the [previous Leonid Kuchma] Administration poisoned his appeal as much as the dioxin poisoned the body of Yushchenko,” Manafort wrote in a memo, referring to the mysterious poisoning that almost killed Yushchenko and badly disfigured him.

From the analysis set out in the previous section of this Report, the answer to the problem is clear -- Victor Yanukovych must be replaced.”
-- Paul Manafort in a June 2005 memo

Fast-forward five years: Yanukovych wins the presidency of Ukraine, giving Manafort a feather in his cap and new work trying to burnish Yanukovych’s image in the West.

That effort, and the vast sums that Manafort was paid, are now in the crosshairs of the U.S. justice system and the politically explosive investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Released as part of the court docket ahead of Manafort’s first trial on financial crimes, the Yanukovych memo is one of hundreds of pages of documents that offer a glimpse into Manafort's political wiles and give new dimension to a case that continues to rattle President Donald Trump’s presidency.

In The Beginning

Prior to entering Ukrainian politics, Manafort had run in Republican Party circles for years in Washington. He was close to Bob Dole, the former senator who was the Senate Republican leader in the 1980s and '90s, and he managed the Republican Party convention in 1996 when Dole was the party’s presidential candidate.

Manafort was brought onto Ukraine’s political scene as the country was still dealing with the fallout from the 2004 Orange Revolution. Yanukovych faced Yushchenko in the presidential vote that year, but suspicions of election fraud prompted weeks of street protests.

Yanukovych’s initial victory was later undone by the courts, handing Yushchenko the presidency.

During the campaign, Yushchenko fell deathly ill and was treated at an Austrian clinic for what officials later said was dioxin poisoning.

Former President Viktor Yushchenko, his face disfigured by dioxin poisoning, in 2006

Yushchenko was embraced by the West for his liberal ideals. Yanukovych, by contrast, hailed from the country's industrial Donbas region in the east and was considered close to Russia.

His political party, the Party of the Regions, featured many of Ukraine’s most powerful and wealthiest businessman, who sought a way to return the party's candidates to power. Among those oligarchs was Rinat Akhmetov, a billionaire industrialist from the eastern city of Donetsk who is widely considered to be Ukraine's richest man. Akhmetov introduced Yanukovych to Manafort.

On June 9, 2005, Manafort wrote a 35-page memo to Akhmetov in which he criticized Yanukovych, analyzed his election loss, and laid out a road map for future election victories.

He said that the disgust many Ukrainians had at the time for the tenure of President Leonid Kuchma had helped drag Yanukovych down.

"The intensity of these feelings is very strong. Consequently, the ability of Yanukovych to help lead a campaign against the current administration will not only fail, but it will never gain any traction. His leadership into the campaign would probably signal the death knell of the Party and Coalition that he leads,” Manafort wrote.

In a photo Special Counsel Robert Mueller says was taken at Manafort's direction, then-President Viktor Yanukovych (center) is shown alongside adviser and Party of the Regions lawmaker Hanna Herman (second from right), Oleksandr Yanukovych (far left), Yanukovych's oldest son, and Mykola Zlochevsky, former minister of ecology (second from left), speaking with several unidentified people at an unknown location, most likely Yanukovych's Mezhyhirya estate.

He was also blunt in his assessment of Yanukovych’s future.

“From the analysis set out in the previous section of this Report, the answer to the problem is clear -- Victor Yanukovych must be replaced,” he said.

Yanukovych, who fled to Russia in 2014 after violent protests in Kyiv, could not be reached for comment by RFE/RL. A phone for Akhmetov’s spokesman was turned off, and he did not immediately respond to a text message.

Good Work If You Can Get It

Manafort’s defense lawyers released these documents ahead of Manafort’s upcoming financial fraud trial, scheduled to begin July 31. The lawyers accuse Mueller of trying to introduce evidence that is irrelevant to the case.

The documents include the names of many other American political consultants who worked or overlapped with Manafort over the years.

They also feature Konstantin Kilimnik, a shadowy Russian known as being Manafort’s key representative in Ukraine. Long suspected of ties to Russian intelligence, Kilimnik was indicted earlier this year by Mueller for allegedly trying to tamper with potential witnesses in the investigation.

In one of the only interviews he has given, Kilimnik, who is now believed to be in Russia, told RFE/RL in 2017 that he had spoken regularly with Manafort during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in Kyiv in April 2010

In January 2006, Manafort laid out a plan for Yanukovych and the Party of the Regions to win parliamentary elections, a plan built around promoting good relations with Russia. At the time, Russia and Ukraine had waged a so-called “gas war” over Russian natural gas supplies to Ukraine and those transiting Ukraine to lucrative European markets. The dispute led to a brief cutoff of supplies.

“The key connection must be made to the poor judgment of the Government and the disastrous impact not only [on] the Ukrainian economy but directly on the interests of the Ukraine people,” he wrote in the memo, addressed to Yanukovych and Akhmetov. “The message will emphasize that Yanukovych will not make such a colossal misjudgment and has the relationship in Russia needed to fix the problem created by Yushchenko and his team.”

Over the next few years, Manafort deepened his work with the Party of the Regions.

He also built his business relationships with Russian oligarchs, including Oleg Deripaska, a billionaire who made his fortune in Russia’s metals industry and has long been considered a close confidante of the Kremlin. He was sanctioned by the United States in April.

Manafort leaves U.S. District Court in Washington in February

​Deripaska is believed to have introduced Kilimnik to Manafort in the mid-2000s, around the time Kilimnik worked for the Moscow office of the International Republican Institute. Kilimnik was fired from the U.S. nongovernmental organization after he was found working for Deripaska.

The Return Of Yanukovych

By 2009, many Ukrainians had grown weary of Yushchenko’s presidency, as the country remained mired in economic stagnation and corruption. Yanukovych, who served as prime minister in 2006-07, was seen as a viable alternative, and Manafort worked to burnish his image and the party’s message.

By this point, Manafort’s partners included his longtime deputy Rick Gates and Tad Devine, who later went on to manage the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders.

But for the 2009-10 presidential election, Manafort also enlisted the help of Adam Strasberg, who had worked on the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign of Senator John Kerry.

In the February 2010 vote, Yanukovych defeated the fiery nationalist Yulia Tymoshenko to win the presidency. Manafort exulted in the victory.

Rick Gates

"Having work [sic] campaigns for the last 35 years, this one will be at the top of the list of most satisfying," Manafort wrote to his team after Ukraine’s Central Election Committee certified Yanukovych as the winner.

An e-mail included in the court documents showed Devine authored Yanukovych’s election-night victory speech, which, according to the file, was titled A New Beginning For Ukraine.

Manafort’s efforts also paid off in the 2012 parliamentary elections, where the Party of the Regions won a resounding majority of seats. On April 2, 2012, Gates reached out to Devine and two other political consultants, asking them to resume work.

"Gents," Gates wrote. "I hope everyone is well. We have once again reached the point in time where we should cast aside all U.S. political work in favor of everyone's most beloved country -- Ukraine."

Devine declined.

The Hapsburg Group

Following his election victory, Yanukovych moved to mend fences with Russia. He also moved against political opponents, including Tymoshenko, who in 2011 was jailed on what many observers viewed as political motivated charges.​

Yulia Tymoshenko smiles as she listens to the judge in Kyiv's district court during her trial on July 15, 2011.

With criticism in the West mounting, Yanukovych, with Manafort’s help, tried to publicly justify the case against Tymoshenko.

Manafort enlisted the help of several influential European politicians to promote the Ukrainian government in Washington and Brussels. They later became known as the Hapsburg Group.

In a February 21, 2013, memo to Yanukovych, Manafort wrote that "the elements of the Hapsburg project have proven very effective in dealing with the EU."

"The key to these successes is that the participants are significant European leaders who are viewed as objective regarding Ukraine," Manafort said. "This has allowed them to make their points without any apparent self-interest, thus giving their comments more weight and impact."

Showing that the effort extended to the United States, Manafort wrote, "The Hapsburg team will also do a series of events between March and May in Washington DC designed to change the public rhetoric directed at Ukraine, but to also influence key members of the US Government through private meetings held at the highest levels."

“This will include major speeches, participation in key events, and private meetings with senior US officials including Secretary of State John Kerry, and other members of the Administration,” he added.

Manafort’s work with the Hapsburg Group figures prominently in the second criminal case brought by Mueller, which is pending in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

While the trial opening on July 31 is focused on alleged financial crimes, the Washington, D.C., case centers on allegations that Manafort failed to register as a foreign agent in the United States for his work for the Party of the Regions.

Manafort and his former deputy, Rick Gates, paid the Hapsburg officials to “take positions favorable to Ukraine, including by lobbying the United States,” according to an indictment filed in February.

The indictment also alleges that Manafort and Kilimnik tried to engage in witness tampering, by trying to "influence, delay, and prevent the testimony" of two persons with knowledge of the Hapsburg Group's work.

Gates earlier this year pleaded guilty to money laundering and other charges brought by Mueller’s team and agreed to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation, a move that brought further pressure on Manafort.

Kilimnik declined to comment to RFE/RL when reached by text message, responding, “Please erase my number.”